Jeopardy

jeopardy 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Mel Dinelli

Based on: “A Question of Time” radio play by Maurice Zimm

Director: John Sturges

Cinematographer: Victor Milner

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Meeker, Barry Sullivan, Lee Aaker

Release: March 30, 1953

Studio: MGM

Percent Noir: 50%

Barbara Stanwyck is the queen of film noir, but we all know that she was in as many stinkers as she was masterpieces. And that’s okay – even in her worst films, Stanwyck was still awesome, and it made you appreciate her professionalism. So when I viewed the opening credits of this little-seen, little-discussed one-hour-and-ten-minute noir and they were in the font of a bad ‘50s monster movie, I didn’t hold out much hope. Boy was I wrong.

Sure, it starts pretty badly. Stanwyck’s character Helen is given some bland (bland!) filler voiceover to pad the running time, going on about travelling and Tijuana in a film that has little to do with the former and nothing to do with the latter. But as the actual story is set into motion, things get interesting. Helen, her husband Doug (Barry Sullivan) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker) are vacationing in a remote part of Mexico. They set up next to an abandoned, falling-apart jetty, and thanks to an accident Doug gets his leg stuck under a pole of wood. He’s fine, but trapped, and no one panics… until they realize the tide is coming in and will drown Doug within four hours unless they get him free. Uh oh. Helen races to get help and rope to move the wood, but it’s at least an hour’s drive to anywhere with human beings.

In other words, things suck. They get worse when Helen accidentally picks up an escaped murderer named Lawson (Ralph Meeker) and is suddenly thrust into a battle of wills with him. He wants to get out of the area before the police find him, she just wants to get back to help her husband. And all through this, the tide continues to come in…

jeopardy 3Once the story gets moving, it’s a doozy. Better than that, no one acts stupid. Helen tries to use the car’s jack to get the wood off her husband (why did it feel dirty typing that?). She tries to get away every chance she can once Lawson shows his true colors, and physically fights him often so she can escape (one fight in particular seems so real I’m surprised Meeker didn’t come away with scratches on his face). Though at first Helen seems no more than a cardboard wife character, the more desperate she gets, the more interesting she becomes.

And once Lawson enters the picture, it’s impossible to look away. I am not familiar with much of Meeker’s work aside from “Kiss Me Deadly,” but damn the dude is talented. He has firecracker chemistry with Stanwyck, and though he is a vile, despicable guy, Meeker makes you like his swagger and personality from the moment he starts eating Helen’s crackers (not a metaphor). I almost wonder if they rewrote the ending of the film to give Meeker some redemption and the possibility of escape once they realized that the audience would immediately fall for him.

jeopardy 2Meeker and Stanwyck take part in a very interesting scene at an abandoned house. An increasingly desperate Helen knows her husband only has a few minutes left, so she tries her hand at seducing Lawson. And since it’s Barbara Stanwyck, she does a damn good job at it. You really believe her when she makes sex eyes at Lawson and says “I’ll do anything to save my husband.” Lawson says that, if he helps Doug, Helen will have to go away with him and pretend to be his wife so that, when they are stopped at roadblocks, the police believe them. Helen agrees, and then the duo begin to make out. They kiss, trade insults, then kiss again. Lawson says that he doesn’t like this, kisses her once more, and they cut away. Does Helen have sex with Lawson? Probably. I’m legitimately shocked that they allowed this content in a film in 1953 but hey, good for them. I love moral ambiguity.

Also outstanding is the finale, where Lawson redeems himself by rescuing Doug in a nailbiting sequence (Sullivan seems legitimately trapped as he’s getting smacked hard by some pretty intense waves). And once he does, Helen holds up her end of the bargain by offering to leave with him. But Lawson tells her to stay with her family, then has to run when he sees the police approaching. He and Helen shake hands, and I found myself oddly moved by the moment. The movie also doesn’t even imply that Lawson will be caught – we see him escaping and have hope that he’ll get away.

There are also a bunch of small moments within the subplot of Doug and Bobby waiting at the jetty for Helen to return that just shine. When the water gets fairly high and Doug suspects Helen might not make it in time, he has a frank conversation with his son, telling Bobby that, if he dies, that Bobby still needs to stay there by the car so that he doesn’t get lost in the desert before Helen can return. Then, when Helen and Lawson arrive in the nick of time, they find Bobby embracing his father as the waves smash into the two men. It’s beautiful and touching.

Also impressive are the locations. Director John Sturges and cinematographer Victor Milner either built the creepiest jetty I’ve ever seen or found the perfect one on location. It just gives you the chills. And the sequences where Doug is trapped and the tide envelops him are brilliantly staged and choreographed – I’m certain part was done in studio, but I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference between the location shooting and the stuff done on the lot.

The crew list is an embarrassment of riches – seriously, what were all these great filmmakers doing on this little tiny B-movie? I’m not complaining, but still. First, we’ve got composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who did scores for little movies like “High Noon,” “Dial M For Murder,” “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and “The Guns of Navarone.” Cinematographer Milner was reaching the end of a storied career that included such diverse masterpieces as Lubisch’s “Trouble in Paradise,” DeMille’s “Cleopatra,” Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story.” Perhaps the one guy who seemed fit for the project was screenwriter Mel Dinelli, who wrote great (but underseen) noir films like “The Spiral Staircase,” “The Reckless Moment” and “House by the River.”

And then there’s director John Sturges, who would go on to helm the wonderful “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.” Here he keeps the movie moving along at a breakneck pace, building to a fever pitch that you won’t forget and making things like tricky locations and an incoming tide look simple to shoot.

“Jeopardy” really blew me away. For a movie that starts with horrible voiceover that makes you cringe, by the end of the brief running time I cared about everyone involved to the point that I was at the edge of my couch. If you’ve never seen it, track it down, pronto.

Score: ****1/2

Advertisements

Vicki

vicki 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writers: Dwight Taylor & Leo Townsend

Based on the novel “I Wake Up Screaming” by Steve Fisher

Director: Harry Horner

Cinematographer: Milton R. Krasner

Music: Leigh Harline

Cast: Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters, Elliot Reid, Richard Boone

Release: September 7, 1953

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 50%

As I watched “Vicki,” which is an almost scene-for-scene remake of 1941’s “I Wake Up Screaming,” I became certain that a very good version of this story can exist… but neither of these films is that. “Laura,” which came out a few years after the original and a few years before this one, is an exponentially better variation on this story. Go see that instead, please.

The carbon-copy-ness of the film begins with the storyarc. Popular NYC celeb Vicki (Jean Peters) is dead, and crazypants detective Cornell (Richard Boone) has apparently decided that her promoter Steve Christopher (Elliot Reid) did it, and will do anything to prove it. Steve teams up with Vicki’s sister Jill (Jeanne Crain) to figure out what’s really going on. Dry, rinse, repeat.

I think it goes without saying that all the storytelling problems that I had with the original film are here as well, though with one or two extra bits. Screenwriters Dwight Taylor and Leo Townsend add in a nonsensical prologue with Cornell going on vacation then realizing Vicki is dead and insisting that he be put on the case (by yelling over the phone like a baby who hasn’t gotten his baba yet). Considering that he is part of the coverup of her death, this detour made me go “wha…?”

vicki 2I have so many questions about why this film even exists. The history of nearly identical remakes of Hollywood films is somewhat varied. When sound became a thing in the industry, studios hurried to remake their biggest silent hits with sound, changing little else. Then, during that same period until around 1940, instead of dubbing the American version of a movie, studios would simply shoot several versions of the film in different languages. That’s where we got the much-superior Spanish version of “Dracula.”

But this is different. Only a little more than a decade had passed since “I Wake Up Screaming” hit theaters and (presumably) did good business… but it wasn’t a classic or anything. One might make the argument that Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters were big (okay, B-list) stars then and it was to cash in on their popularity… but even then they didn’t compare to the continuing popularity of the original film’s stars Betty Grable and Victor Mature. In 1953, the year “Vicki” was released, Grable was starring in “How to Marry a Millionaire” and Mature was in “The Robe.”

And even if you were going to remake the basic story, why not fix it? Why not alter the characters to make them seem like human beings? Why not cast someone in the Cornell role who didn’t act like he was about to have a massive stroke in any given moment? Both films are less than three minutes apart in running time, and even the minor structural and storytelling changes between the two feel more like moving furniture than improvements. Well, at least we aren’t hearing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the soundtrack every three minutes this time…

It’s an odd experience, seeing different actors inhabit similar spaces saying comparable, sometimes identical, dialogue. It’s like watching the “Psycho” remake or the two versions of the fourth “Exorcist” film.

vicki 3Harry Horner was the director and visually, for the most part, his work is undistinguished and pales in comparison to H. Bruce Humberstone. Everything is flat and television-like. Compare the interrogation scenes from the original to the ones here and you’ll see what a difference there is. Then compare the lobby climaxes and you’ll get depressed.

There are three (small) moments that are improvements – the opening shots, which show Vicki’s Kardashian-like control of every magazine cover/poster/advertisement in New York, culminating in the viewer seeing her name on the toe-tag attached to her dead body. The second is just a few seconds… our first introduction to Vicki. Horner frames it so that Vicki looks up at camera when she first notices the men staring at her from outside the diner, connecting us to her visually. The third is the final shot of the film, showing the happy couple having solved the mystery and marching past an old sign of Vicki’s, which is being replaced by another sign with a different young starlet on it.

Like the first film, the acting isn’t exactly good. Boone is an unfortunate villain while Crain and Reid seem chemistry-free and bored. Peters comes across best (like Carol Landis did in the original), but the addition of a flat scene of her singing and showing off Vicki’s “talents” doesn’t do her any favors.

I’m struggling to find anything else to write about “Vicki,” aside from being thankful that the title at least makes sense this time. Like I said at the top, you should watch “Laura” instead of “I Wake Up Screaming.” And if you’ve somehow managed to watch “I Wake Up Screaming” all the way through, you’ll know better than to visit this little noir. There are much better ways to spend an hour and a half – please scroll up and down this Web page for a few ideas.

Score: *1/2

The Bad Sleep Well

bad sleep well 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1960

Studio: Kurosawa Production Co.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Eijiro Hisaita

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyoko Kagawa, Takashi Shimura

Cinematographer: Yuzuru Aizawa

Music: Masaru Sato

In some ways, it shocks me that “The Bad Sleep Well” is the first film Kurosawa chose to make with his new production company. It’s a dark noir with a bleak ending starring Mifune in a decidedly unsexy role that serves as a public service announcement about corporate greed. Not sure how he expected it to make a profit. And then the other part of me speaks up, reminding me that Kurosawa probably had desperately wanted to make this film with these messages for awhile and may have been hobbled by Toho, so this was a “now or never” moment for him. Whatever the case, I’m happy he did, because this is a damn good movie.

Mifune plays a man named Nishi or, more accurately, he plays a man who plays a man called Nishi. He’s posing as Nishi to help bring down corporate corruption, which years ago resulted in the death of his father. He’s quite ruthless – marrying the lame daughter (physically lame, personality-wise she’s pretty cool) of Iwabuchi, who runs the corporation he’s trying to bring down, just to get closer to the nest of vipers. Well, at first it’s just for that reason, anyway. Things get complicated when Nishi develops real feelings for the woman, named Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa).

Critics often cite this as a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” attempting to wedge it into an adaptation trilogy with “Throne of Blood” and “Ran.” And sure, if you squint at the “son seeking revenge” narrative and bump the third act of “Hamlet” to the first act of “The Bad Sleep Well” and then squint some more, there’s some truth there. I understand why critics do this – using the word “Shakespearean” makes everything seem more “important,” but it also does a disservice to the world Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters are building and the message of the film (which is quite different from that of the Bard).

In many ways, this is the most daring film Kurosawa has made since “Ikiru,” or perhaps ever. He has such faith in himself and the story he is telling that he does wild things with the structure and narrative that are basically unheard of before or since. His main character does not speak for the first half-hour of the movie (!), he only states his full motive an hour-and-a-half into the movie (!!) and the climax happens off camera (!!!). And yet, in each of these cases, “The Bad Sleep Well” is somehow strengthened by these choices.

The first 20-odd minutes are devoted to one of my favorite Kurosawa set-pieces ever. It’s a familiar setting to fans of the maestro, with a group of people talking about a character or situation in order to get exposition out but also set the stage, almost like a Greek chorus. He’s done it poorly (“The Quiet Duel”), well (“Seven Samurai,” “The Idiot”) and brilliantly (“Ikiru”) and this is one of those brilliant times. A bunch of reporters show up to Nishi and Yoshiko’s wedding to cover the arrest of two members of the evil corporation. They define the situation, the stakes, the rumors of corruption, and also define Yoshiko and Nishi in ways the characters will later overturn for us…but it’s neat to throw down those red herrings early. This is the kind of sequence where the humor is incredibly black and characters scream things like “If you hurt my sister, I’ll kill you!” and no one acts like it’s crazy town.

bad sleep well 2The sequence climaxes with the delivery of a three-foot high wedding cake shaped like the evil corporation’s headquarters with a rose stuck in the window designating the place where Nishi’s father died. Subtle? Nope. Absurd? Yes. If Francis Ford Coppola had put a threat-cake in “The Godfather” the movie would have been laughable. And yet somehow, with Kurosawa at the helm, it works.

Consciously or not, Kurosawa has Mifune dressed exactly like Clark Kent, a somehow fitting disguise for Nishi. Nishi’s arc is one of the most interesting in all of Kurosawa’s oeuvre. He dies off camera just before achieving his goals in a truly tragic finale, but upon second viewing you pick up parts of his character and what Kurosawa was going for. At one point Nishi laments that he’s not wicked enough for this game, and that “To overturn evil, you have to become evil yourself.” Nishi is, at heart, a good man…and therefore unable to achieve his goal. He also states that he wants to do it “…for all the people who don’t even know they’ve been had.” It would appear he misses this goal, but on second glance you realize that he does win over the two most important people – his wife and brother-in-law, children of the villain and blind to his machinations until Nishi opens their eyes. The co-writers underline that this is a victory by having other characters tell Nishi that Yoshiko “will never understand.” Turns out she does.

Hollow victories? You could argue yes, but I don’t believe so. Killing off Nishi offscreen is a baffling decision at first, until you realize that seeing Nishi’s loved ones reacting to the tragic news is far more upsetting than seeing the tragedy happen itself. To understand the power, you have to see the aftershocks, and that is what Kurosawa rightly chooses to highlight.

bad sleep well 3The film is beautifully shot by Yuzuru Aizawa in his only collaboration with Kurosawa…after this he’d be relegated to films like “Godzilla vs. Meglodon.” I don’t know why they never worked together again, because they make an incredible team here – making each frame ooze with noir style, never moreso than in the secret hideaway (That tremendous shot where man and wife are separated by a fallen beam? Beautiful!) and in the long office break-in scene.

Quibbles? The music! Good lord, but what was up with that weird circus music for Nishi in the second half? And could the music in the first half telegraph the emotions we’re supposed to feel any more obviously?

I was beginning to lose faith after the one two suckage punch of “The Lower Depths” and “The Hidden Fortress,” but “The Bad Sleep Well” is a Kurosawa masterpiece. I love that he gives no easy answers but is unafraid to ask the hard questions. It’s a movie that you adore intellectually, but the sucker punch hits you right in the heart. What a special film.

Notes:

-Kurosawa’s obsession with feet continues with all things Yoshiko-related. That first shot of her two feet, one lame and one normal, is impossible to look away from.

-The Criterion DVD is fine, but definitely needs an upgrade.

I Wake Up Screaming

i wake up screaming 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Dwight Taylor

Based on the 1941 novel by Steve Fisher

Director: H. Bruce Humberstone

Cinematographer: Edward Cronjager

Music: Cyril J. Mockridge

Cast: Laird Cregar, Carole Landis, Betty Grable, Victor Mature

Release: November 14, 1941

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 50%

I had one of two reactions to every scene in “I Wake Up Screaming.” The first was “girl, what now?” And the second was “what the actual fuck?” Here is a legitimately beautiful film where not a single character acts like a human being for more than 10 seconds, people forget major plot points that happened in the previous scene and no one seems to much care about the dead main character. It also has one of the best name of any film noir – a name that has absolutely nothing to do with the movie itself.

Though the movie plays with time and flashbacks, the essential story is this: Vicki (Carole Landis) was discovered by three guys while working as a waitress in a diner. They helped her become the toast of NYC society, then she decides to leave for Hollywood and is promptly murdered. One of the men, a promoter named Frankie (Victor Mature) is the number one suspect, especially for obsessed detective Cornell (Laird Cregar). Also in the mix is Vicki’s sister Jill (Betty Grable), who is falling in love with Frankie.

I really want to read the original novel upon which this was based, because I have so many questions about the way the story was structured and why certain information is disclosed to the audience when it is. The biggest problem is the Cornell character, who is supposed to come across (I think) as a cop obsessed with getting justice for Vicki no matter what, with the twist ending being that Cornell actually helped cover up her death (a cop’s obsession with a dead girl and the picture of Vicki over the fireplace was a definite precursor to the much-better noir milestone “Laura” three years later). And yet, halfway through the movie, Jill is speaking with police officers about a creepy man who was stalking Vicki for months (months!), and then the second she sees Cornell she points at him, screaming that he is the guy who was stalking her sister. Okay, well now the audience knows that Cornell had something to do with it. This is a major plot development, right? But then every character appears to get amnesia, pretending the last scene never existed. Less than two minutes later, Jill is being questioned by Cornell and not acting like he’s a creepy stalker. She never tells Frankie what happened. The scene appears to be an island all out on its own, ruining the twist for the audience but having no impact on the characters.

i wake up screaming 2That’s just the first of a myriad of problems I have with the storytelling – the second is that no one is acting like someone they loved is dead. After Jill discovers Vicki’s dead body, we find out that she rifled through her sister’s things before the police arrived. She doesn’t seem that upset that Vicki is dead while being questioned by police – instead she’s miffed they are being mean to her. And everyone’s reaction to losing their beloved sister is to fall in love with the prime suspect, right? What little tension and pacing the movie had is completely destroyed by a horrendous 20 minute “falling in love montage” between Jill and Frankie… which includes an endless scene where they go swimming together (!?) in an indoor NYC pool at night. Poor, poor Betty Grable is horrible as Jill, unable to get a hold on such a bad character and sharing zero chemistry with Victor Mature, who likewise seems lost in his role.

One can’t really blame Mature, because his role is almost as badly drawn as Jill’s. Frankie seems to wave away any importance to the police investigation, cracking jokes to police officers and calling them stupid despite the fact that one of his best friends is dead and he’s the prime suspect. Why isn’t he taking this seriously?! Then when Cornell begins to seriously stalk him, he cracks jokes with him and gives him rides, only to seem angry at Cornell’s behavior two minutes later.

I have some other logical questions regarding the screenplay. Why is no one reporting Cornell’s cuh-razy behavior to his boss, which includes – breaking into Frankie’s apartment at night and watching him sleep, breaking into Jill’s apartment and grabbing evidence without a search warrant, trying to beat up Frankie and literally stalking him when his direct supervisor tells him not to. How can Frankie keep getting away with threatening police officers multiple times? Does no one in New York lock their doors? And why the hell is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” playing on the soundtrack ad nauseum? That last bit wasn’t about the screenplay, but still.

The director, H. Bruce Humberstone, has a super awesome name and directed some of the best entries in the Charlie Chan franchise, and perhaps that’s a clue as to why no one is behaving like the murder matters. In those films, all the characters except for Charlie and his son are suspects, and no one ever seems particularly upset about murder. But while it works for Charlie, the character behavior seems cuckoo for cocoa puffs here.

i wake up screaming 3It’s a shame too, because the movie is beautiful to look at. Sure, it’s weird having the name “I Wake Up Screaming” up in Broadway-style lights for the opening credits, but after that things get interesting. All the police interrogation scenes involve smoke, profile shadows (Humberstone loves the profile shadows) and some fantastic lighting. These scenes are precursors to dozens of similar scenes in later noir, most notably the opening to “Murder, My Sweet.” It never gets better than a sequence involving the lobby in Vicki’s apartment building, with well-placed lights breaking through an intricate metal elevator to create amazing shadows, particularly on Mature. That scene is one of the most indelible of early noir.

But sadly, it’s stuck in this film. The screenplay, as previously stated, is inane. The acting from leads Grable and Mature is awful. There are two great performances, from Cregar and Landis. Cregar is a fantastic villain… it’s a pity the movie uses him so poorly, because if the film raised itself to the level of his performance, it could have been great. Landis blows everyone else around her away in her few scenes – it makes you say “Shucks, I wish she hadn’t been killed off before the movie started.” It’s a shame to think that these two great actors would be dead in only a few years, never to become the stars they should have been.

The weird irony to finally getting through the torture of watching “I Wake Up Screaming”? Now I’m going to immediately watch its noir remake, “Vicki,” which came out in 1953. Ouch.

Score: *1/2

Gun Crazy

gun crazy 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Dalton Trumbo (uncredited at the time), Millard Kaufman, MacKinlay Kantor

Based on the “Gun Crazy” story by MacKinlay Kantor

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Cinematographer: Russell Harlan

Music: Victor Young

Cast: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Berry Kroeger, Harry Lewis

Release: January 20, 1950

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 80%

Peggy Cummins has one of the most interesting faces in all of film noir. Undeniably beautiful, every aspect of her face seems perfectly proportioned, and taken together with her styled hair she looks like a porcelain doll. Aside from “Gun Crazy” and the horror treasure “Night of the Demon,” Cummins’ never worked on any other major features, which is a shame because she brings a very unusual quality to her performance here. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I believe that some people would call it “star quality.”

“Gun Crazy” has essentially been pigeonholed in history as “the precursor to ‘Bonnie & Clyde’” and no discussion of the film (including this one) seems able to separate this film from that. This is a damn shame, since “Bonnie & Clyde” is a cinema touchtone that helped to fundamentally alter the way the public watched movies, and this little gem could never live up to that. Oh well…

The film follows John Dall’s Bart, who has been obsessed with guns since he can remember. We first meet him as a young boy stealing a gun during a rainstorm. Later, we flash back further to Bart playing with his first bb gun. Writer Dalton Trumbo and director Joseph H. Lewis give us an indelible moment in film history here – the young Bart first seems so adorable shooting the gun into the middle of nowhere, but then he sees a nearby chick. His eyes narrow. He aims. He kills the chick. And in two seconds the audience has gone from sympathy to absolute horror.

gun crazy 2Bart becomes an army brat and returns home years later to find a carnival in town. There he meets Cummins’ Annie (name’s a bit on the nose, no?) and gets into a shooting contest with her. At one point in this scene, she bends over and shoots her gun through her legs right under her crotch. We get the imagery. Bart joins the carnival, but when they have trouble with the owner Packett (Berry Kroeger), who has been raping Annie, they run off together. Money is tight, so they start using their God-given talents to make ends meet.

Lewis is one of those geniuses who managed to fall through the cracks of history, only to be rediscovered when noir became a thing. This is his crown jewel in a filmography of many great, forgotten films. Here he crafts a one-take sequence that is completely audacious in terms of style, tone and storytelling. The camera stays in the back seat of Bart and Peggy’s car the entire time. We follow them as they drive through a town (all shot on location), making small talk with one another about parking and such that could represent any couple as they’re out for a daily drive. Then they pull in front of a bank. Bart goes in. Annie stalls by making hilarious gun-centric small talk with a cop. Then the getaway. All in one, breathless, amazing shot.

gun crazy 3There are two other iconic sequences in “Gun Crazy.” The first is another robbery, this one in a slaughterhouse. Bart and Annie have gotten fake jobs there (too easy? Probably.) and Annie murders two people in cold blood on the way out. Can one make metaphorical discussions about the dead pig carcasses hanging around being equated with our two leads? Of course. But I think they picked a slaughterhouse ‘cause it looked fucking awesome.

The final sequence is the other great scene. Annie and Bart are lost in the California woods and crawl into a small marsh at the center of a pond to hopefully hide from search dogs and get some rest through the night. The fog rolls in, and they wake up hearing people approaching, but are unable to see anything. The sequence uses many of the same tricks as the pool scene in 1942’s horror classic “Cat People” (directed by “Night of the Demon’s” Jacques Tourner), panicking the audience by what they can’t see and using a moody, soundtrack of footsteps and splashes to build tension. “Cat People’s” moment still works, but the shadows and weird animated blobs in the background have aged it, whereas Lewis’ atmosphere here is as sharp and intense as ever.

The other big revelation here is John Dall. Everyone knows him as the repressed gay murderer in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope.” Here he’s a killer again but the performance could not be more different. The guy is sympathetic, loving and tragic in all the right ways – it’s such a shame that Dall never became a bigger star, because the kid had range.

Cummins is well-matched with him, and has a harder character to inhabit. You never can doubt that Annie fully in love with Bert, but you have to believe that she’s a loose cannon and could fly off the handle at any time. In some ways, she’s as coldly calculated as many of noir’s best femme fatales (the moment she says they should steal a baby because no one will shoot them if they’re holding a baby), but elsewhere she has to seem vindictive, petty and running on nothing but instinct. I love the moment she’s running for her life, drops her fur coat and tries to go back for it.

Lewis goes all in visually here. He likes shooting through objects toward the action, first through broken glass in the first scene, then through Annie’s legs later, then through the car window in the aforementioned robbery sequence. He is also willing to go for style over logic if it means great shot composition. When the young Bert is brought to court for his crime, he is not seated anywhere one would think a young boy should be sitting, but way over by himself in front of the window. Why? Because it creates the perfect shadow across the floor, of course!

“Gun Crazy” is one of the essential films noir, and one of my personal favorites. You really engage with the crazy couple and their deaths are tragic in just about every way (Bert is forced to shoot Annie to protect his friends seconds before he is shot himself). Lewis is in top form and Trumbo’s lean, mean script is loads better than his bloated historical epics from a few years later. It really hits the mark.

I’m so sorry about the pun.

Score: *****

Dillinger

dillinger 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Philip Yordan

Director: Max Noseck

Cinematographer: Jackson Rose

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Laurence Tierney, Edmund Love, Anne Jeffreys, Elisha Cook Jr.

Release: April 6, 1945

Studio: Monogram Pictures

Awards: Nominated for Best Original Screenplay but lost to “Marie Louise”

Percent Noir: 60%

“Dillinger” goes to show just how far a blunt object can get when shot in the right direction. Unsubtle, director Max Noseck’s film cuts down the years of John Dillinger’s (Laurence Tierney) violence down to 70 lean minutes that manages to capture both the wickedness of its subject along with his isolation and inability to connect with humanity around him. This is one of those very interesting, hard-to-pull-off films where you hate the main character, but still understand him.

This was Tierney’s first major role, and he acquits himself well to the role. I really disliked his performance in “Born to Kill” because I didn’t buy that anyone would look at his screen persona and see anyone but a psychopath. Here almost all the characters see Dillinger as a psychopath from minute one, so that didn’t bug me as much.

There’s an odd opening where Dillinger’s father begs an audience who has just watched newsreel footage of Dillinger’s acts to understand that his son was just a normal kid. Then we meet Dillinger in the flesh, trying to explain his point-of-view to a lush who is only on a date with him for the booze, which she is double fisting. She wants more and the clerk doesn’t trust Dillinger enough to take a check, so he excuses himself and robs the store next door for seven dollars. He’s caught by the police and thrown in the slammer.

There he meets a pack of interchangeable heavies led by Specs (Edmund Lowe). Dillinger vows to break the guys out after he’s sprung. He gets out and robs a woman named Helen (Anne Jeffreys). She initially fingers him to police but when they put him into a lineup, Helen makes a win for feminists everywhere by changing her story because she thinks Dillinger is cute. They’re together soon after that. Meanwhile, Dillinger breaks the guys out, and they form a gang that robs numerous banks. Before you know it, Specs and Dillinger find themselves in a struggle for power. Specs calls the cops, who arrest Dillinger when he’s about to get surgery for an impacted tooth.

dillinger 2Then things get weird. While behind bars, Dillinger uses a piece of wood(!), a knife (!!) and some shoe polish (!!!) to carve himself a fake gun (!!!!) that he uses to escape the prison (!!!!!). I of course immediately researched this because I couldn’t fathom it happened… and it sort of did… only the real Dillinger carved a potato to look like a gun. You can’t make history up, folks.

Dillinger heads back to the gang, offs Specs and the movie becomes something of a paranoid thriller. He becomes increasingly isolated from his comrades, doesn’t trust anyone and as a result gets much, much more brutal and deadly. There are several near-misses with the law, and the once-great robber ultimately finds himself locked in a disgusting apartment for seven months while all the world searches for him.

dillinger 3Broke and with an especially unseemly pornstache, Dillinger can’t take it anymore. All his gang are either dead or in prison except Helen, who offers to take him out on a date. There’s a moment that is heartbreaking as the duo exit the apartment building, where Dillinger expresses surprise that Helen still wants to spend time with him, since he always figured she was just banging him for the money. It’s a revelation to his character, but heartbreaking to us since we know Helen called the cops for the reward money, and that Dillinger only has a few hours left to live.

The screenwriter, Philip Yordan, gives most of the two-dimensional characters straightforward dialogue without many flourishes, but this type of movie doesn’t really need that. Yordan instead gives us a film structure that’s just about perfect. There are two bookend moments that are fantastic. First, Dillinger begins the film robbing a bank for seven bucks and being gunned down in the finale with seven bucks in his pocket. Second, he returns to the dumpy bar that refused his check in the first act to get revenge on the clerk who refused to serve him, brutally slicing his throat open with a broken beer mug (the movie is very violent, did I mention that?).

Instead of fantastical robberies with multiple steps and scenarios with fake-outs and whatnot, Yordan and Noseck offer up straightforward scenarios that seem realistic. The gang throws smoke bombs at an armored truck in the middle of a rainstorm (the footage here was lifted from Fritz Lang’s “You Only Live Once”). They spray officers with a fire hose. They do make an elaborate plan to rob a train, but it goes wonky and fucks up almost immediately.

Tierney is the center of the film and all the supporting actors do okay in their thinly written roles. Elisha Cook Jr. is wasted again in a nothing role. Jeffreys hits her marks and nails her final scene with Tierney, but not much more. The real stars here are the story and the insistent score by Dimitri Tiomkin. By the way, what’s a maestro like him doing on a Monogram movie? I wondered if he made this during a lull in his career, but this work is placed smack between “Shadow of a Doubt” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so who knows.

Nosseck keeps the direction straightforward, using a lot of location shooting that prefigures the “bright noir” of the late ‘50s. He does have fun with the long shadows of the prison, but aside from that doesn’t do much else stylistically to show off, which is fine because it’s not what this film needs. A Jew who fled Germany when Hitler came into power, it doesn’t seem like he ever made another film that has stayed in the zeitgeist aside from a mostly forgotten “Black Beauty” adaptation, and that’s because of the subject and not the film itself. What a pity.

“Dillinger” was a huge hit and was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, which was unusual for a Monogram film. Apparently all the major studioheads had gotten together years before and promised not to make any gangster films. Monogram and the King Brothers, who produced the film, were not at the meeting and made the movie. Louis B. Mayer got wind of what was going on and asked that the producers destroy all the nitrate for the public’s good. I’m guessing the King brothers were all “First, thanks for not inviting us to this big summit you went to. Second, fuck off.” Good for them.

Score: ****

Born to Kill

Born to Kill 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Eve Green & Richard Macaulay

Based on: the novel “Deadlier than the Male” by James Gunn

Director: Robert Wise

Cinematographer: Robert De Grasse

Music: Paul Sawtell

Cast: Claire Trevor, Lawrence Tierney, Walter Slezak, Phillip Terry, Audrey Long

Release: May 3, 1947

Studio: RKO Pictures

Percent Noir: 80%

Somewhere lost in the clusterfuck that is “Born to Kill” is an aces noir. The filmmakers sure seem happy enough to embrace the darkness inherent within the genre, and the film is surprisingly vicious and dark. And yet it’s one of those movies that is only good if you squint at it, blurring the major and minor problems that litter most scenes.

The film centers on Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the none-too-subtly named Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), who sort of meet in Reno while she’s in town for a quickie divorce. They don’t say much to one another, but have lots of eye sex at a casino and she accidentally walks in on the double murder crime scene he created in her kitchen, so they’re basically BFFs by the time they hop on a train together for San Francisco.

born to kill 2Helen is the adopted sister of the uber-rich, uber-boring Georgia (Audrey Long) and engaged to the also uber-rich, also uber-boring Fred (Phillip Terry). Sam basically stalks his way into her circle, quickly marrying Georgia (like three weeks quick) but carrying on an affair with Helen the entire time. Things are made even more complicated by an oily private dick named Albert (Walter Slezak) who is investigating the double homicide from Reno.

The screenplay by Eve Green and Richard Macaulay asks us to swallow that Sam is so handsome and charming in one minute that he can seduce and marry the sensible Georgia in less than a month, but also so mentally unbalanced and jealous that he’ll kill at the drop of his hat, including murdering his best friend for spending three minutes in Helen’s bedroom while said best friend is about to murder a nosy neighbor for him. Look, I get it, some of the best noir antiheroes are blunt objects, dangerous in one moment and charming the next. It’s one of the tropes of the genre, and when done very well (“Murder by Contract,” for example), it’s awesome. This is not that. Sam seems so unhinged in almost every scene that one wonders how he even bathes himself, let alone get a wife, carry on an affair with the woman’s sister and be a murderer. It’s taken to such an extreme where it almost becomes inadvertently funny.

Maybe no actor could have pulled off the character, but Tierney certainly does the role no favors. He seems to think that glowering in every scene when not speaking equates with sex appeal, and saying lines quickly in a disconnected manner is hard-boiled. And women can’t stop talking about how hot he is… they must be really attracted to the “constipated” type. One of Sam’s early victims does get off this great exchange with her friend concerning the psychopath:

“You feel like, if you stepped out of line, he’d kick your teeth down your throat.”

“Ain’t that wonderful?”

born to kill 3Then again, none of the actors really shine here. Trevor should be a great femme fatale, and won the Oscar for her work in the noir “Key Largo” the next year. We know she can act, but for some reason she seems to be on tranquilizers for most of the movie. She nails two scenes, the first when she realizes Sam is a killer and becomes sexually aroused, and the second when she threatens a woman played by Isabel Jewell, and it makes you wonder what happened to the rest of her performance. Perhaps she’s hobbled by a nonexistent character arc that gives her two repetitive climaxes begging characters not to leave her after she’s forgotten about them for the past hour of the running time?

Trevor’s meh work is echoed by the rest of the cast. Given little to work with, Terry and Long make zero impression. Slezak appears to be in an entirely different movie, one that’s a lot funnier, and seems to relish chewing the scenery whenever he appears. The great character actor Elisha Cook Jr. doesn’t know what to do with his minor role so he bugs out his eyes often because it seems dramatic. Jewell is awesome in the aforementioned scene with Trevor, but aside from that just shrieks her way through the role.

Looking at these good actors giving their bad performances, one can’t help but look to iconic director Robert Wise as the reason. This is his fifth time directing (prior to directing, he was one of the best editors in the biz, cutting “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” among other masterpieces), but he had gotten great performances before, like in the horror classic “The Body Snatcher.” Perhaps he was too engaged in how the movie looked to bother with the actors?

And that’s certainly the one place “Born to Kill” excels – it’s visually amazing. When I’ll think of this movie years from now, I’ll remember how Wise (aided by his cinematographer Robert De Grasse) staged many of the scenes in ways both new and exciting. Look at the moment where a guy walks into a kitchen and snaps on the light as he heads to the fridge. We see, but he does not, Sam waiting for him in the room, adding to the suspense. Later, when Helen happens upon two bodies in the kitchen and drops a dog in with them, Wise taps into his experience with Val Lewton’s horror films to make the scene really sing.

There are also moments in the screenplay that are amazing, like when Helen discovers the bodies then goes to the phone. She hesitates, starts up the stairs and then turns back around. We assume she’s about to call the cops, but she calls the train station instead. Or when Jewell’s character fights back when she’s trying to be killed. That said, the on-the-nose dialogue (Helen tells Sam, “You’re strength and excitement and depravity. There’s a kind of corruptness inside you, Sam.” Ugh.) and way-too-coincidental coincidences make much of the film hard to swallow (seriously, Sam followed his friend miles to a beach in the middle of nowhere, waited until he almost murdered a woman and then attacks? Really?). In many ways, it feels like a filmed first draft of a screenplay.

That said, I still like that the movie is just unabashedly dark. It hates its characters as much as we do, resisting making them sympathetic at all. That’s bold and deserves praise. The problem is that not much else here does.

Score: **

Angel Face

angel face 1.jpgThe Noir Odyssey

Writer: Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard

Story: Chester Erskine

Director: Otto Preminger

Cinematographer: Harry Stradling

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Herbert Marshall, Barbara O’Neil, Leon Ames

Release: February 11, 1953

Studio: RKO Pictures

Percent Noir: 60%

“Angel Face” is the blackest of black films, and yet takes place mostly during the day in bright, large spaces. Here is a film without an ounce of sympathy for its main characters… and that somehow makes it impossible to look away from. In case you can’t tell, it’s a film of contradictions, and that’s what makes it extraordinary.

Robert Mitchum plays a schlub ambulance driver named Frank (because of course his name is Frank) who answers a call one night to a house way up in the Hollywood hills. Catherine (Barbara O’Neil) has suffered from gas poisoning, but is doing fine by the time Frank gets there. On his way out, Frank meets Catherine’s step-daughter Diane (Jean Simmons), who is upset. He assumes it’s because she almost lost her stepmother, but of course it’s because Diane’s murder attempt was botched.

Frank’s got a girl, Mary (Mona Freeman), but he doesn’t care about her. She’s only a conversation starter – something for Diane and Frank to discuss as foreplay. Diane goes into the usual manipulations to demonize her mother-in-law, but Frank sees right through them. This is one of the blessings of “Angel Face” being made near the end of the classic noir cycle – audiences have seen that story already so screenwriters Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard blow right past it. They want us to know that Frank sees Diane for the femme fatale she is, and doesn’t care. The way Frank uses logic on Diane to tear apart her machinations is one of the high points of the film, with crisp dialogue and Diane’s confused eyes watching Frank, trying to read what he’s thinking.

angel face 3Not-so-shockingly, Catherine ends up dead along with Diane’s father. Diane has rigged up their car so that it’s stuck in reverse and, when the gas pedal is touched, it shoots into full throttle. The car goes careening down the mountain in an epic car smash-up. As if that wasn’t cool enough, director Otto Preminger and his editor intercut this with Diane playing piano, just in case we didn’t already know she was heartless.

Frank and Diane are arrested for the murders, and here is where “Angel Face” stumbles a bit. A lawyer (Leon Ames) forces the duo to get married to bolster their defense, and for a good 20 minutes in the second act we completely abandon Frank and Diane’s point-of-view, instead focusing exclusively on the trial. They don’t even get a line or a dramatic turn on the stand – they just sit there silently as their lawyer does all the talking. Noir masterworks “Leave Her to Heaven” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” also embraced lengthy courtroom scenes in their second halves, but both kept us engaged with the characters. They also had character actors Vincent Price and Hume Cronyn, respectively, turning in career-best turns in their plum little roles as lawyers. Ames was also in “Postman” as the DA, but you barely hear about his performance, and here he doesn’t rise to the occasion. In addition to a lesser performance, Ames isn’t given the same delicious material to sink his teeth into. The results are enough time for a long bathroom break or the perfect time to get popcorn, since it’s a foregone conclusion that Frank and Diane are going to be acquitted.

Things improve exponentially once Frank walks out on Diane to go throw himself on Mary’s mercy, but he weirdly doesn’t pack before he leaves. Huh, it’s almost like it’s a game. And that’s where “Angel Face” is at its best, with its two main characters dancing around one another pretending to care about what’s happening. Diane wanders around the now-empty house, the cat that caught the canary and then choked on it. Frank comes back again “to pack” and Diane convinces him to let her drive him “to the airport.” He feigns determination at leaving her, but when he sees a champagne bottle sitting in the car he wastes no time in popping it.

angel face 2Then, of course, we get perhaps the bleakest ending in film noir – Diane plows the car over the same hill where she killed her parents, plunging them to their own deaths. As awesome as the first wreck was, it was fairly obvious that there were dummies in the seats. Here, on the other hand, the dummies are spot-on, and the Mitchum one in particular flails perfectly as it’s crushed in the wreckage. It’s unnerving.

Mitchum had done this type of roll a bunch by now, and had even sent up the persona in the great noir comedy “His Kind of Woman.” He could have sleep-walked through it, and the fact that he didn’t is a testament to his professionalism. The camera is in love with Simmons, who doesn’t quite rank among the best femme fatales in cinema history, but she does an admirable job of seducing and killing, and I’m not sure what more you could ask for.

Director Preminger, of course, is one of the most important voices in American film, and his footprints in the noir genre are major (“Laura!” “Fallen Angel!” Whirpool.” “Where the Sidewalk Ends!”). But even his non-noir films are heavily influenced by the genre, to the point where films like “Daisy Kenyon,” “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “Anatomy of a Murder” are often called noir because of their visual eccentricities and tone. Here he works with an assured hand, and thank God for that, since a lesser director’s film would have us hating Frank and Diane and ready to walk out by minute 15.

Preminger is aided immensely by Harry Stradling’s fantastic cinematography. Together, the two ditch the fog and shadows of most noir and give us an un-showy production in the bright light of Los Angeles. The light works because the characters and their actions are so dark. Stradling worked often with visual masters like Hitchcock, Minnelli and Kazan, and it’s a shame he didn’t have more collaborations with Preminger.

Because of the middling second act, “Angel Face” just misses that first tier of noir reserved for the masterpieces, but any connoisseur of the genre should really seek it out for the finale alone.

Score: ****

A Woman’s Face

womans face 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Donald Ogden Stewart

Based on: the play by Francis de Croisset

Director: George Cukor

Cinematographer: Robert Planck

Music: Bronislau Kaper

Cast: Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, Conrad Veidt

Release: May 23, 1941

Studio: MGM

Percent Noir: 50%

It’s one of the most iconic noir images: Joan Crawford, looking beautiful, dressed in fur and holding a gun. She’s suspected of murder in a frame story that sets up a long series of flashbacks. You’re probably thinking of Michael Curtiz’s masterpiece “Mildred Pierce,” but George Cukor’s “A Woman’s Face” did all that and more four years earlier. It makes sense that “Mildred” is the movie more remembered today – it won Crawford an Oscar and is the better film – but “A Woman’s Face” is a crackerjack early noir and worthy of rediscovery.

womans face 2The film takes place in Sweden and begins with Crawford’s Anna on trial for murder. A group of ne’er-do-wells are there to testify against her, and we flash back to see how we got there. It all started years ago when Anna was part of a blackmailing ring. We discover that Anna has much facial scarring from an accident in her youth, and it has turned her into a cold-hearted you-know-what. But one man, the slimy Torsten (Conrad Veidt) shows her kindness (more than likely because he wants out of debt and figured hitting on her might work). Anna falls in love with Torsten, and fate soon puts her in the position of having the scars removed by the kind-but-cynical doctor Gustav (Melvyn Douglas).

Now physically damn near perfect, Anna presents herself to Torsten, expecting to live happily ever after with him. But Torsten has other plans, specifically manipulating Anna into murdering an adorable boy with the unfortunate name of Lars-Erik (Richard Nichols) who happens to be the heir to a large fortune Torsten wants to get his hands on. Anna goes undercover as a nanny for Lars-Erik, but like the Grinch at the end of the cartoon, her heart grows three sizes and she starts questioning how wicked she really is.

Will Anna realize that Torsten is really using her? Will she murder the adorable tyke or save him? Even though this is a noir, it’s also an MGM A-picture, so chances are you already know the answers to the above questions. That said, screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart has a lot of fun getting you there.

Cukor and his cinematographer Robert Planck have to find interesting visual ways to cover Anna’s scars during the first half of the film, and you can tell that they have a lot of fun exploiting the creativity of German expressionism to get that done. Anna is introduced as a shadow, watching over her transactions before introducing herself, half her face still in shadow. There’s lots of smoke, mirrors (Anna hates mirrors) and much more visual invention than one would expect throughout. Though Cukor is legendary because of the iconic performances he got from his actresses on a regular basis (“The Philadelphia Story,” “A Star is Born,” “My Fair Lady” “The Women” and “Gaslight” really are just the tip of the iceberg), he also was the director on arguably the most beautiful Technicolor movie ever – the aforementioned Judy Garland version of “A Star is Born.”

Here he also presents us with two tremendous suspense set-pieces. The first is when Anna has Lars-Erik (that name just doesn’t get any better no matter how many times you write it) in an open-air cable car that rides near a beautiful waterfall/whirlpool, and she is about to murder him. Through simple close-ups of Crawford’s eyes and hands, Cukor gets across so much tension. The sequence is reminiscent of one Alfred Hitchcock crafted in “Sabotage” when a woman decides to kill her husband, but I prefer this Cukor sequence. The second has Anna and Gustav in a horse-drawn sleigh chasing another sled driven by Torsten, who has Lars-Erik hostage and is about to murder him. First, Crawford looks fabulous in her fur coat and gun. Second, so much could have gone wrong here, from the rear-projection to the stunts to the camera placement, but Cukor and his editor make the entire affair seem epic and effortless, two of the hardest words to actually capture on film.

All through this, Crawford gives one of the best performances in her career. Actually, it probably rivals her Oscar-winning work in “Mildred Pierce,” and I can’t fathom why “A Woman’s Face” didn’t earn her an Oscar nomination. Watching the wave of emotions that cross her face when Torsten first sees her scars and is kind to her is stunning – fear, confusion, a different sort of fear and then hope… all without words. Speaking of words, Crawford also gets some great speeches here, the best being here monotone reading of her early life, told in one shot by Cukor. Any other actress would have vamped it up, but Crawford offers an exhausted sensibility to the words one would never have expected.

womans face 3Veidt offers up a solid performance that is, at once, menacing and sympathetic. He really nails the scene where he tries to manipulate Anna one final time. Douglas, on the other hand, offers little to an underwritten role. He gets the most ham-handed dialogue, and unfortunately does nothing much with it. Cukor has fun with all the supporting characters, though, making sure to give each of them small moments to ensure we remember them.

Though “A Woman’s Face” often touches greatness, it still is filled with flaws. A lot of the blame goes in the screenplay, which is filled with on-the-nose dialogue – one would expect better from the writer of “The Philadelphia Story.” As noted above, though there are several crackerjack suspense sequences, there isn’t a lot of tension concerning whether or not Anna will kill the child. And there is a long (long!) Swedish dance sequence two-thirds of the way through the movie which brings everything grinding to a halt. All of the information could have been gotten across in a small, intimate dinner scene, but instead we are thrust into a big set-piece with bad costumes and worse dancing.

Still, I kind of loved “A Woman’s Face.” Cukor and Crawford worked well together, and this early noir is an embarrassment of riches visually. Track it down – you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Score: ****

5 Against the House

5 against the house 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Stirling Silliphant, William Bowers & John Barnwell

Based on: the novel “5 Against the House” by Jack Finney

Director: Phil Karlson

Cinematographer: Lester White

Music: George Duning

Cast: Brian Keith, Guy Madison, Kerwin Mathews, Alvy Moore, Kim Novak

Release: June 10, 1955

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 30%

It’s never a good thing when the best thing about your movie is a parking garage.

“5 Against the House” is a very bad film made by very talented individuals. As I watched the endless 84 minutes, I found my mind drifting from what was onscreen several times, instead focusing on how something with so much potential could have gone so wrong. There’s potential here. Was it studio notes? Too many screenplay drafts? Too few? Bad casting?

The story focuses on the robbery of Harold’s Club Casino in Reno by a group of four college friends. Two of the friends, Brick (Brian Keith) and Al (Guy Madison) are recently back from the war in Korea, and Brick has PTSD. Oh, and Al has a girlfriend named Kaye (Kim Novak). Yeah, that’s about it.

5 against the house 2The story doesn’t even get started for 35 minutes, and then doesn’t get any traction until 55 minutes in. This is not an exaggeration. One would think (and hope) that the film would use all that empty space for character development and help cement the dynamic of the four friends. One would be wrong. For most of the movie’s running time, the guys are completely interchangeable. They all speak in the same manner, have the same humor and presumably share a brain, because 80% of the dialogue in these early sequences is either set-up/punchline or finishing each other’s sentences. It doesn’t help that Al and one of the other guys, Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), look alike in that same bland handsome way, because for the first few minutes I kept screwing up which is which. Even the unfortunately names Brick sounds exactly like the others until a switch is turned and he goes psycho.

There’s a great movie somewhere that touches upon the subjects of friendship and loyalty under horribly stressful circumstances. Also fascinating is the idea that these men are leaving the war and immediately heading into college, forced to restart their lives while still mentally coping with the horrors of war. And there’s something really interesting about the introduction of a woman into an all-male dynamic and the subsequent jealousy. Aside from a line or two, “5 Against the House” is not interested in being any of these movies.

Instead the first 50 minutes are scene after scene of the guys messing around. It plays as sitcom-style comedy, with a lot focusing on them hazing a freshman. A few of the scenes are funny enough, like one involving spilled water and a knife, but none of them really give us insight into these men.

Why do they decide to rob Harold’s Club Casino, you ask? It’s out of boredom. Yep, they get bored and decide to rob a casino. I was bored watching the first hour of this crappy movie, but you don’t see me hopping in a car and heading for the Bellagio, do you? Ronnie laments that he really wants to do something extraordinary that ensures history will remember him, but in the next scene talks about how they’ll get away without anyone knowing, so… uh… sure.

How do these guys know all about casino security? Well, one of them points out the two-way mirrors, so I guess that about covers it.

5 against the house 3The robbery itself involves the four friends donning some hilarious facial hair. For five minutes of screen time, I was legitimately unsure of whether they were supposed to be in costumes of if they were being serious. Even now I’m only 60/40. They have a speaker in a makeshift casino cart that spits out things like “stick ‘em up!” and “why I oughta!” They find a guy on the floor (William Conrad, emoting better than any of the leads) and tell him that there’s a small person hiding in the box who will pop out and shoot him if he doesn’t do everything he’s told. Oh, and Kim Novak stands outside looking dire. The plan allegedly hinges on having four people helping out, but in truth could easily be done by two people – maybe even just one.

Stirling Silliphant, William Bowers & John Barnwell wrote the screenplay, with Silliphant and Barnwell also producing. What happened? Some of the dialogue is quite funny, but funny in that surface way bad sitcom dialogue is funny. Silliphant in particular is better than this – his “The Lineup” is one of the best written films noir ever. But nothing builds. Nothing pays off. You wonder if Columbia Pictures kept giving the note that the guys were unlikeable and so, little by little, their characters were drained away. Also, I’d like to ask them why Kim Novak’s character is in the movie… aside from it needing a female. Does she add anything to any scene?

This is one of a few noir films directed by Phil Karlson, most of which are still unseen by me. He doesn’t seem to work well with his actors, and his visual direction of the film amounts to making a car garage and the inside of a casino look real pretty. Still, it’s hard to hate a guy who directed a couple Charlie Chan flicks.

In case you couldn’t tell, I really didn’t like this movie. It’s so bad that I’m not even going to dignify it by making a poker pun in my last sentence.

Score: *